By Mallory Bateman - 29 Oct 2007
Two women whose lives became connected nearly four years ago met for the first time last week at Utah Valley Hospital to tell the touching story of their lives and experiences with organ donation.
In 2003, the day after Christmas, Elise Tolman's husband of 14 years was in a serious car accident from which he did not recover. Tolman, a Delta resident and mother of five boys, was three months pregnant at the time.
"I had no idea how hard it would be to say goodbye," Tolman said. "When I left the room his heart was still beating."
Tolman said she was scared to tell his family of the decision she had made years ago -- to donate her husband's organs.
"When I told his family they were quiet," Tolman said. "But then my sister-in-law stood and said she supported me and anyone who didn't should keep quiet."
Tolman said she wasn't speaking to condense 36 hours of agony into a 5-minute talk. She said she wants people to know that people are all ordinary, but donating a loved one's organ is an extraordinary, heroic act.
"I could have been superstitious, ignorant or stingy -- but he would have still been gone," Tolman said. "Instead, we made a difference."
About 18 months after her husband's death, Tolman received a letter from the recipient of his kidney and pancreas, Cory Tyler. Tolman said it's been a privilege to get to know Tyler and was glad they could finally meet in person.
Tyler, 30, from Pocatello, Idaho was diagnosed a diabetic at age 11.
"I was foolish when I was young," she said. "I would sneak candy and didn't test my blood sugar."
She became more responsible with age, but by then it was too late, Tyler said. She rarely attended school because she was always tired and sick, but she said she was lucky enough to find someone who loved her and to get married, she said.
In 1999 things got worse. Doctors told Tyler that she would need to begin dialysis and continue doing it for the rest of her life, she said.
"I would sleep all day and night," Tyler said. "I would wake up to do dialysis every four hours and even sleep during dialysis."
Tyler said she had a life, but was too sick and tired to live it. She told herself there was no way she could continue living like this. Doctors told her she could be put on the transplant list.
Several years later Tyler received a phone call informing her that a transplant was on its way. "We couldn't believe how blessed we were," she said.
Tyler said all she could think about was how someone had just died -- she couldn't imagine how to say thank you.
"[Tolman] has given me my life back and I want to thank her for that," she said.
Tyler said she now truly lives. She plays with nieces and nephews, runs, goes sledding and teaches pre-school. She said she has always wanted to teach because she loves children and can't have any of her own.
"Now I have 12, but I get to send them home at the end of the day," she said.
Tyler said she feels better than ever and the best part -- she's no longer a diabetic.
The two women related their stories as the Organ Donation Medal of Honor was awarded to the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center.
In order to receive the award, at least 75 percent of a hospital's eligible donors must donate.
In 2003, fewer than 50 percent of eligible donors actually donated.
That same year the federal government started a project to improve organ donation rates, the Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative.
The program brought together donation professionals and hospital leaders working to increase and improve organ donation.
The U.S. department of Health and Human Services presented 392 of the nation's largest hospitals with the Organ Donation Medal of Honor.
"This award represents compassion and grace under pressure," said Liz Roach, director of hospital development for Intermountain Donor Services.
Roach said the award symbolizes grace not only from doctors involved in the surgeries, but from families who chose to give during a terrible time in their lives.